I had an interesting Twitter conversation a while back when World Weaver Press tweeted a link to an article about hot alpha males (“dangerous,” “possessive,” “dominating,” etc.) in paranormal romance. Being a total behavior nerd, I replied that most of these “alpha males” were actually displaying lower-ranking behavior – real alphas don’t posture, act aggressive or defensive, etc. — and we chatted briefly about the implications for fiction and paranormal fiction in particular.
This is something the behavior community takes for granted (though we recognize that much of the mainstream is still lingering in the “pack leader” mindset). I could spend hours explaining why hierarchy-based models of behavior modification — mostly recognizable by phrases like “dominant” and “pack leader” and “submissive” — are at best distracting and inefficient and at worst dangerous to both human and animal, and professionally I’ve done just that. Here on the writing blog, however, I’ll talk about what that means for fiction.
Hold on, did I just say that the alpha hierarchy model is bunk? Well, um, pretty close. But don’t make my word for it; listen to Dr. David Mech, the man largely responsible for the “alpha wolf” terminology in pop culture, explain that it’s an outdated and incorrect concept.
So, yeah, natural wolf packs (and other natural social units) don’t generally have alphas, but breeding pairs. Nor do our pet dogs regard us as pack leaders, unless you’re into a particularly sick interpretation of animal husbandry. But for the sake of this post, let’s think of the unnatural amalgamation of individuals to form a new social unit which may develop a social hierarchy with an “alpha” — you know, change and conflict, like we love in our fiction.
The Strong, Silent Type
Let’s start with a video example.
Now, imagine that scene played differently: as Charles and Erik introduce themselves, Wolverine shouts angrily and leaps up, catching the bar stool in one hand, ready to strike. What do you think of his character now? “Man, that guy’s defensive. Something to hide. Twitchy. What a jerk. And I’ll bet Xavier can find what’s niggling him and use it to make him change his mind.”
Even if Wolverine crushes that upraised stool in his fist? He’s truly terrifying! But, he’s also still jumpy and hyper-reactive. The scene loses flavor, and the character loses standing.
But when he can’t even be bothered to make eye contact (so much for the “eye contact is dominant” myth) and is more concerned with getting a refill on his drink than the two super-powerful mutants flanking him, well, we know exactly where he stands.
The “Ready When You Are” Type
It’s would be hard to argue with John Wayne’s persona as a representative alpha male, and indeed, here’s a clip to prove it.
(Not included in this clip: Hondo next shoos the dog out the of walkway.)
When an alpha is pushed to action, he takes care of conflict with a minimum of bravado, ego, and fuss. Malcolm Reynolds of Firefly shows how it’s done.
The Social, Friendly Type
I’d like to introduce you to one of the most alpha males in all cinema — James Garner’s character Jason McCullough in Support Your Local Sheriff. People don’t usually think of comedies as being rich sighting grounds for alpha males, but this 1969 Western send-up has some excellent specimen moments.
Jason McCullough doesn’t want any trouble, and he’s about as laid back as you can imagine about taking resolving conflict. But he does resolve it, and efficiently.
Here McCullough is having a nice, relevant conversation when a fight breaks out. He doesn’t want to get involved, or lose his overpriced food.
The More Noise, The Less Alpha
“Now think real hard. You’ve been birddoggin’ this township a while now. They wouldn’t mind a corpse of you. Now you can luxuriate in a nice jail cell, but if your hand touches metal, I swear by my pretty floral bonnet I will end you.”
“You know what the chain of command is? It’s the chain I go get and beat you with until you understand who’s in ruttin’ command here!”
Back to my day job a moment: think about how many times you’ve heard that a dog owner should be physically or verbally forceful to maintain his dominant position? Are you noticing yet why this makes more scientific trainers a little crazy? Completely aside from interspecies issues, humane/ethical issues, and the whole inefficiency of it, it’s a bit like using an assistant manager name tag to try and bluff into the 95th floor executive washroom.
The Alpha Female
I am often annoyed by stories including “strong women” who are labeled such only because they can punch someone or fire a gun or whatever, but still are emotionally-dependent or incompetent. “But she’s totally a strong female character because she yells at people!” is not a valid character argument. Nor, as covered above, is she “alpha.”
So I mentioned I was writing this post and asked what alpha females my husband could think of. The first several he mentioned were all villains. (No comment…) But there are certainly good examples out there:
- M, in Skyfall
- the Dowager Countess, in Downton Abbey (actually, Dame Maggie Smith in just about everything I’ve seen her in….)
- Cleopatra (in history, as well)
- Zoë, in Firefly
- Queen Elizabeth I, in Fire Over England (and other films, and probably in history)
And one of the most definitive alpha scenes, male or female, ever filmed can be found in Queen Christina, a 1933 Greta Garbo film. When an angry mob storms the palace, complete with torches, she dismisses the guards and goes alone to meet them. (I’ve cut the clips together for you.)
But, What About Those Hot Alpha Males?
We are, however, often intrigued by a competent, friendly, confident guy who is secure enough both to extend a hand and openly give credit to others, because there’s no need to hoard resources or social standing.
For example, my husband is excellent at his job and enjoys hanging out with me on weekends, but he isn’t possessive about me spending time with other people. He’s often asked to assist others because he’s good at it and enjoys being helpful. And at a shooting match last weekend, I overheard him talking with another competitor: “Yeah, she’s a better shot than I am, and I’m okay with that. I think it’s cool.”
And, man, that is so hot.